Sometimes it seems as though we reach out to mark anniversaries when the present-day news is almost too much to handle. It’s safer, somehow, to look back: the outbreak of the First World War, the handing over of the Balfour Declaration, the Armistice…
And now we are deep in anniversary territory, as this week we remember that 80 years ago, Britain declared itself at war with Germany, with all its dreadful concomitant results.
I have been thinking this week of my own family, ordinary, not bestowed with medals (as far as I know) or singled out for acknowledgement as survivors.
Thinking about what it must have been like for my parents – who had not yet met – as they sat with my grandparents and the people who would become my aunts and uncles, listening
to the radio, to hear Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain admit that his “peace in our time” initiative with Adolph Hitler had failed miserably.
Twenty-one years after the so-called ‘Great War’, supposed to have been the war to end all wars, Britain’s young men – and women – were on the march again. And they were, at first, poorly armed and badly organised in some respects: Germany had been furtively rearming for several years by 1939, while Britain, despite the endless warnings of the future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was short of everything, from planes, to food, to fuel.
By the time I was growing up and able to ask questions, my mother, at any rate, was sick of the whole subject. Every time I asked my father about his wartime experiences, my mother would close down the conversation. She didn’t want to talk about it, she said. My father, I think, would have said a lot more, but I only gleaned bits and pieces.
From my mother, however, I got something of the sheer sense of grinding terror – if there can be such a thing. Day in, day out, for six years, never knowing if your home or office or factory would still be in the same place as you had left it. Or the people.
My grandfather’s raincoat factory was bombed out, twice. My mother, not deemed fit enough for active duty, was a fire warden, whose improbable job was to patrol the rooftops of her neighbourhood, helping to put out blazes from German rockets.
My father was in a radar unit, attached to all three armed services, providing communications to troops throughout northern Europe before ending up with the British liberation forces at Belsen.
I don’t know, and was never able to find out, what my parents knew of the horrors of the concentration camps, although I assume that my father learned all too much when he arrived at Belsen.
Next year there will be one of the last of these kind of anniversaries — 75 years since the end of the Second World War. For me, these commemorations only underline the importance of asking questions while you can – put yourself in the shoes of the older generation.
Neither of my parents was a hero. That is, they were not public heroes. But to me they were remarkable: ordinary British Jews, caught up in an inexplicable conflict not of their making, but determined, as far as they could, to offer their own small opposition to Hitler and everything for which the Nazis stood.
We owe them, and all their peers, everything.